Verbascum sinuatum L. Plant Family: Scrophulariaceae
The silvery green leaves and bright yellow flowers of mullein have been utilized for thousands of years in traditional medicine to soothe the upper respiratory tract and appease and repel evil spirits. This gentle herb has been used extensively in European and North American folk medicine and thus has a plethora of folk tales associated with it. Presently, mullein can be found at health food stores often prepared as soothing leaf tea or an ear oil made of the infused flowers.
Mullein is a biennial herbaceous member of the Scrophulariaceae family, bearing silvery green and extremely fuzzy leaves,3 and growing up to 8 feet in height. In the first year it appears as a basal rosette of leaves, and in the second year, it sends up huge flower spikes with many bright densely clustered yellow flowers which only open for one day.2-5 Its generic name, Verbascum, is thought to be derived from the Latin word 'barbascum' with 'barba' meaning beard and referring to the hairy leaves.2 It has over 200 hundred species including V. nigrum and V. blattaria, many of which can be used interchangeably.2 It is native to northern Africa, the Canary and Madeira Islands, many regions in Asia and Europe, and now widely naturalized throughout the world and growing as a weed in disturbed soils.1 It will grow in compacted poor soil. The deep root helps to help break up the soil and then when the leaves die, the dead foliage adds nutrients the soil. Interestingly enough, often it improves soil, making it good enough for other plants to thrive, and then moves on and quits growing there.5
Cultivation And Harvesting
Mullein is weedy and thus widely available, the only major thing to consider is that harvesting is best in areas that are free of pollutants.5 Collect the large basal leaves that are close to the ground6 at most any time of year, and collect flowers in the summer, mid-morning after dew has dried.5
History And Folklore
Dioscorides, a Greek physician pharmacologist and botanist, practicing in the 1st century in Rome, who authored the herbal De Materia Medica, was one of the first to recommend mulleins use in lung conditions around 2,000 years ago.3 It was used as a hair wash in ancient Roman times; the leaf ash to darken hair, and the yellow flowers for lightening it.3 The leaves were dried, rolled and used as wicks for candles and the entire dried flowering stalks were dipped in tallow and used for torches, hence the names 'candlewick plant' or 'torches'.2,3 According to Maida Silverman in her book A City Herbal, " The great respect and love formerly accorded to mullein can be inferred from the number and variety of the folknames for it."3
Mullein leaf, flower and root, with its litany of folk uses ranging from 'nature's toilet paper' to an effective apotropaic (fancy word meaning that which wards off evil spirits), have been used extensively in folk medicine.2,3,5 Its magical qualities were numerous, going way beyond simply warding off evil but also was thought to instill courage and health, provide protection, and to attract love.7 In fact, it was believed that wearing mullein would ensure fertility3 and also keep potentially dangerous animals at bay while trekking along in the wilderness.7 Further, allegedly a practice for men in the Ozark mountains to attract love consisted of simply pointing the mullein's flowering stalk towards the direction of his love's house and seeing if the stalk went upright again indicating her reciprocated love.7 Mullein, like so many herbs of European origin, were introduced by the colonists and then incorporated into the Native American healing tradition.3 The root was made into a necklace for teething infants by the Abnaki tribe, the Cherokee applied the leaves as a poultice for cuts and swollen glands, and other tribes rubbed the leaves on the body during ritual sweat bathes.8 Additionally, the flowers were used internally as teas and topically as poultices.8 The Navajos smoked mullein, referring to it as "big tobacco" and the Amish were known to partake as well.3
According to King's American dispensatory (a book first published in 1854 that covers the uses of herbs used in American medical practice), "upon the upper portion of the respiratory tract its influence is pronounced."9 Mullein was prescribed by Eclectic Physicians (a branch of American medicine popular in the 1800-early 1900's which made use of botanical remedies)3 who considered it to be an effective demulcent, diuretic, and anodyne, and a mild nervine "favoring sleep." 9
Mullein is a very gentle herb, with an affinity for the upper respiratory system, and exerts a mild sedative action upon the lungs.6 Primarily the flowers were steeped in oil and administered to soothe earache and the leaves were made into a tea to support upper respiratory health. 2,3,5,6 The dried leaves have been smoked for centuries as a relaxant for spasmodic lungs and can be mixed with herbs such as lobelia to enhance this effect. The above ground plant parts should be thoroughly strained when making into teas, cordials, etc as the hairs can be irritating to those who have allergies and sensitivities.6 In fact, this slightly irritating quality was utilized by Native Americans who were said to put leaves in their moccasins to increase circulation and warm the feet.5
sedative, diuretic,6 expectorant, astringent, demulcent,10 emollient2
Mullein has been used as a piscicide (a substance that poisons fish) and was even mentioned in the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, for its use as such.15 It was traditionally put in water to paralyze fish so that they could be easily caught. 2,9 Apparently, the saponins (phytochemicals that are present in many plants and have a foaming properties) present in mullein are quite toxic to various water dwelling animals and insects, but are generally fine for humans especially when cooked.2,15
Specific: No known precautions.
General: We recommend that you consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before using herbal products, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or on any medications.
- United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville Area Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN).
- Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
- Silverman, Maida (1977). "Mullein". A City Herbal: Lore, Legend, & Uses of Common Weeds. Ash Tree Publishing. pp. 99–104. Accessed at http://www.ashtreepublishing.com/Book_City_Herbal_Mullen.htm on August 4, 2014.
- Wetherwax, M. (1993). "Verbascum thapsus L.". Jepson Manual online. University of California at Berkeley.
- Wheaten, P. “Mullein: Heal The Earth With Cowboy Toilet Paper” — http://www.permies.com Mullein (mullan, Verbascum thapsus) Accessed at: http://youtu.be/4putIxHsNCk on August 4, 2014.
- Moore, M. (2003). Medicinal plants of the Mountain West (No. Ed. 2). Museum of New Mexico Press.
- Cunningham, S. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications; 2000.
- Moerman, D.E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Accessed at http://herb.umd.umich.edu/ on June 9, 2014.
- Felter, H.W. and J. U. Lloyd. King's American Dispensatory. Eclectic Medical Publications, 1898. Accessed at http://www.henriettes-herb.com/ on July 10, 2014.
- Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, eds. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.
- First Ways Blog. Accessed at http://firstways.com/2011/12/07/five-surprising-uses-for-mullein/ on August 4, 2014, citing García Márquez, G. (1994). Love in the Time of Cholera.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.